Census. The American Economy: A Historical Encyclopedia

A systematic accounting of persons, demographics, and economic resources of the nation.
Since ancient times, governments have recorded census
information in an effort to determine the composition and
condition of the nation or empire, primarily for taxation
purposes. Under the U.S. Constitution, the United States conducted its first census in 1790 and has continued to do so
every 10 years. Early census records focused primarily on
population statistics—for example, the number of free persons and slaves, family size, and average age groups. Not until
the 1820s did the government include additional categories
to glean information about agriculture, commerce, and manufacturing. (Just four years prior to the 1820 census, the government had enacted the first of many protective tariffs
designed to encourage the growth of manufacturing.
Consequently, the figures were important as the government
sought to track economic changes.)
By 1840, the census expanded to include information on
transportation (sea navigation, canals, and lakes), mining,
churches, libraries, schools, education, literacy, marriages,
births, and deaths. Also included was information pertaining
to newspapers and printing. The inclusion of these facts
reflects the onset of the market revolution and its accompanying transportation, communication, and social revolutions. The 1840s and 1850s were a period of tremendous
change as a result of the move from subsistence to a market
economy, and through the census the government attempted
to record these changes.
The next major change in the census occurred in 1870,
when categories were added for race and place of birth in an
effort to track the origins of foreign-born peoples residing in
the United States. Other categories added concerned taxation
(federal, state, and local) and property. Significantly, it was
not until the 1900 census that adequate figures appear on
labor—not surprisingly, well after the major labor strikes of
the late 1800s. After a period in which divorce rates increased
rapidly, the government included questions about the marital status of Americans in the 1930 census. By the 1940s, the
census questionnaire also included categories for retail and
wholesale establishments, reflecting expansion of the nation’s
commerce during World War II. By the 1960s the census
sought a wealth of information that enabled the government
to discern the economic and social condition of the country.
Congress uses the statistics to determine the allocation of
funds and programs. The primary concern in recent decades
is the undercounting of homeless and minority groups, a fact
that could reduce federal expenditures in the areas most in
need of funds.
—Cynthia Clark Northrup
Kassinger, Ruth. U.S. Census: A Mirror of America. Austin,
TX: Raintree Steck-Vaughn, 1999.
See also Volume 1: Population; Slavery; Volume 2: Labor;